For many, a personal journal is just that — personal, often kept in a discrete place such as the bottom of a drawer. Mikel Cirkus, on the other hand, wants to celebrate his journals with the world. His life’s experiences will become an open book at the West Windsor Arts Center August 20 through September 7, when “Cirkus Diurnus: Sketchbooks of a Traveling Artist” goes on view. It kicks off with a big party on Saturday, August 25, from 4 to 8 p.m., with live music from Dark Whiskey and DJ ItsJustAhmad — free and open to the public.
Cirkus’s personal reflections — and yes, there is a big reveal — are accompanied by drawings, ideas, quotes, and more. The 63 journals/sketchbooks span 40 years and take us on Cirkus’s journeys around the world where he seeks to “capture moments between the thought, the pen and the paper — magic that is slipping away from our increasingly digital worlds.” There are flow charts and logos and labels and notes on making ginger beer, along with ideas on names and what kind of restaurants carry ginger beer — he’s puzzled why Asian restaurants don’t typically carry it, because the ginger would go so well with the cuisine. The journal entries take you down the rabbit hole.
There are designs for string cheese with doodlings about Bruce Stringcheese and the Easy Treat Brand, although what is on view in “Cirkus Diurnus” offers more universal messages.
Cirkus believes we all walk around with “pages in our heads,” yet rarely write them down, and says he lives by Leonardo DaVinci’s axiom: “God forbid I forget my ideas.” Cirkus has been writing it down since he was 15, and losing his first journal taught him to never lose one again. He never goes anywhere without it, even to a John Cleese performance where he took notes and wrote down quotes, and then went back stage to get Cleese to sign the portrait he made of him.
The artist’s writing implement of choice: a Pilot Sharpie wing gel, which he discovered in Shanghai and subsequently ordered 10 boxes.
Don’t worry, you won’t be squinting to see inscrutable writing on pages and pages of text displayed in vitrines — Cirkus has spared no expense in having some of the best pages reproduced on metal plates, wood, and Plexiglas, among other substrates. And for one section — or as he calls them “acts” — on wine-tasting, Cirkus created prints using red wine corks that had just been pulled from the bottle.
In addition to Cleese, Cirkus has 45 signed portraits of the likes of B.B. King, George Carlin, Steve Martin, Pat Matheny, Bill Cosby, Jay Leno, and Robin Williams. His portrait of Brooke Shields includes a page of her signatures — it’s another story.
A self-styled “creative tastemaker, cultural anthropologist, and trend-spotter,” Cirkus is in his 19th year working as global director of conceptual design in the flavors division at Firmenich, the flavor and fragrance company with headquarters in Plainsboro.
“Mikel Cirkus also traffics in prophecy,” wrote Fran McManus in a profile of the West Windsor resident for Edible Jersey magazine. “The messages he gathers and dispenses … come not from the spiritual realm but from streets and gathering spots in edgy neighborhoods around the world. His job is to seek out inspiration that can catalyze new product development and innovation for Firmenich’s internal teams — as well as for its customers, which include major manufacturers of consumer packaged goods worldwide.”
His responsibility to report on trends at least a year and a half before they become a trend involves paying attention. “All my life I’ve been an acute observer, interested in everything,” he says. Even in junior high, he was aware of the next big thing well ahead of its time, wearing rainbow suspenders before Mork and Mindy popularized them and listening to a band before anyone else had heard of them, he says. As a camper in the 1970s one of Cirkus’s counselors traded him a Genesis CD for a drawing, and Cirkus became a fan of the band before drummer Phil Collins joined and they started performing in stadiums.
“If it’s already a trend, it’s too late,” says Cirkus. “I collect signals that can build to a scenario. I will look for validation around something that someone else will identify as a trend. It can take four years for a signal to become a trend.”
He takes notes, photographs, and writes everything down, so his journals trace the evolution of trends. His “Trenz Walks” may take him to Princeton’s Noodle House on Nassau Street, and specifically to a tea franchise within Noodle House, where he may introduce clients to ginger milk. Is a visit to the newly remodeled Lululemon, also on Nassau Street, important to a beverage company? he asks. “It may or may not be — it’s an established brand that changed the model. A particular pair of yoga pants may be trending.” He will ask why, and pay attention to the color, and whether we’ll see a lot of that color in the next year.
He goes to Jammin’ Crepes where he’ll look more at who’s eating there than at the menu, and take an anthropological view. “I use it to build a case and connect to other things I’m seeking.”
Roaming the streets of edgy neighborhoods around the world — he’s been to Europe, the Middle East, South Africa, the Caribbean, Mexico, Denmark, Indonesia, Japan, and such North American cities as Toronto, Seattle, and San Diego — Cirkus is studying culture and digging for what’s new. He travels so much that, on vacation, he takes a vacation from travel. “But I love it — it’s a privilege.”
Cirkus grew up in Clifton, where his parents ran a residential real estate business. The business did well, and the family summered in the South of France. His father made sure they discussed current events at dinner — he called on family members for what he referred to as their “reports,” Cirkus recounts. The “reports” could also be about music, movies, and art.
During his introverted childhood, Cirkus began drawing the moment a pencil was put in his hand. Much of his inspiration came from the cultural events his parents exposed him to. “My parents had me when they were 17 and 18, so they were young and cool. My father’s name was ‘Art’ and we were always going to New York for theater or cultural tours of Brooklyn.”
At 14 Cirkus met advertising entrepreneur Allen Kay and showed him his first sketchbook. It contained drawings of imaginary characters, automobiles, and Cirkus’s first attempts at typography design. It was from Kay that Cirkus learned there was even such a thing as a career as art director, “and from that moment I was determined to become one. His suggestion: keep a sketchbook of your thinking. He also suggested I attend his alma mater, the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California.” Cirkus graduated in 1986.
Married to West Windsor Farmers Market Manager Chris Cirkus, Mikel Cirkus has not required his daughters, now 24 and 22, to do “reports” but still believes dinner time is important family conversation time — no TV.
A West Windsor Arts Council board member, Cirkus, who created the arts center’s logo as a volunteer about 10 years ago, is renting the gallery space for the three-week duration of “Cirkus Diurnus.” He says the show came about because several people who had seen his journals suggested it, and because of his interest in doing a mural on a wall of the arts center (that project is pending).
Cirkus studied with graffiti artist Leon Rainbow, painting murals at TerraCycle in Trenton. His murals can be seen throughout West Windsor, including at the farmers market, along the Trolley Line Train, Ward Little League Field, and in private properties. He has created a mural for Firmenich’s farm and compares creating murals to the pleasures of coloring.
In the early 1990s Cirkus experienced what he describes as a spontaneous rebirth. “It’s the premise that kicked off the curation of the show,” he says, and comprises one of the exhibit’s Acts. Cirkus wrote about the experience in his 1999 book, “Rock Dove: Evolution of an Individual,” for which he is seeking a publisher. “I wanted to make the book the art and the art the show,” he says. Asked to explain that, he says: “I’ve taken stories from the journal to make the art, and then the book is the art. The art becomes the stories that become the book.”
He also describes his spontaneous rebirth as a “Kundalini awakening.”
It was on a Mother’s Day weekend, shortly after Cirkus lost his best friend to brain cancer. He was attending a conference in order to create its brochure. The conference was of the “if you want to make a lot of money and be happy, do what you love/follow your bliss and the money will come” variety, and when participants were guided through a self-awareness exercise, “it clicked. All the chakras — heart, mind, throat, crown — lit up like a pin ball machine,” he says, referring to the Sanskrit term for psychic-energy centers of the body, prominent in the practices of certain forms of Hinduism and Tantric Buddhism. Cirkus says it was like sitting in a bathtub with a toaster in his lap. “I got blinded from the inside… it was [like having] a spiritual relationship with the creator.”
No drugs were involved, he swears.
Raised a Jew, Cirkus describes this “Kundalini awakening” as a religious experience. “I have not been the same since. My awareness is at a different level. It was pretty deep, and I spent a year trying to figure it out. I had the answer, but I was looking for the question.”
He spoke to a rabbi, a priest, a guru, and a Native American healer “to tell me what this was about. ‘We’re all trying to get where you got because that’s amazing,’ they told me. I know it happened but it was not intentional, and I don’t know if I could do it again. Something lined up.” He looked to Hinduism, Buddhism, Tibetan sand mandalas, and other cultures to identify his experience. “I’ve found hints in early Judaism and Islam. Culture and politics and borders have turned them into what they are today but the roots of everything were one. Somebody here got the message — hundreds of thousands of us are all searching for that same thing.”
“Rock Dove” was originally written in one of his journals, the only journal out of the 63 with ruled lines. “These unique experiences were captured raw, and later became the base stories used to write my unpublished manuscript,” says Cirkus. A selection from “Rock Dove” comprises an “Act” in “Cirkus Diurnus.”
Some artists separate their day jobs from their work as an artist; they separate their spiritual and grounded journeys, and they separate the practical from the surreal. In the journals of Mikel Cirkus, all these spheres — and so much more — blend together on the page. “You can’t predict the outcome of the sketch or thought you put down on the page,” he says.
Cirkus Diurnus: Sketchbooks of a Traveling Artist, West Windsor Arts Center, 952 Alexander Road, Princeton Junction. August 20 through September 7, opening party Saturday, August 25, 4 to 8 p.m. Free. 609-716-1931 or www.westwindsorarts.org.